Shankly: Nature’s Fire ★★★ review

by Nadia Bee

“Natural enthusiasm, that is the whole thing. It’s the greatest thing in the world. Natural enthusiasm. You are nothing without it.”

Bill Shankly, perhaps Britain’s most cherished football manager, has left a lasting legacy and many great quotes. He laid the foundations for Liverpool Football Club to be the world-renowned club it is today. While that legacy endures, Shankly’s Liverpool FC is long gone – what had sprung out of tightly-knit working class communities is now a global, corporate phenomenon. Time then to gather the stories, and dig into the archives.

Shankly: Nature’s Fire; dir.: Mike Todd; UK 2017, 90 minutes. Our Rating: ★★★/5

Shankly: Nature’s Fire is a bittersweet tale, with a touch of melancholy. Early scenes feature Mary Hopkin’s wistful voice, singing Those Were the Days. The tone seems distant from Shankly’s own forthright and combative extraversion. It starts with stark images of Glenbuck, in Ayrshire – where Shankly was born – a small village which over the years had produced over fifty professional footballers out of a population which, at its largest, consisted of only about 1700 people. It is a village which no longer exists, and which had always had a precarious existence, with a problematic water supply, and as Barbara Shankly, his niece, explains, no electricity, at the time he was growing up there.

What’s left now are a few abandoned buildings, and overgrown coal heaps. The landscape is desolate. The camera shows views of low dark grey skies over almost barren soil – yellowed vegetation. Yet these harsh landscapes created something extraordinary – tenacious, loving hope, a great footballing tradition, which in turn, by the 1960s, brought added joy and optimism to Liverpool.

Shankly: Nature’s Fire, turns out to be a social history documentary, rather than a sports film. The story that is told is also the story of places, and living conditions, how these shape people, and how people like Shankly in turn have shaped the lives of others.

Those images set up this documentary to be quite different from other films made about Shankly in recent years. Unlike those documentaries, which include extensive footage of football matches, this film shows only short extracts; the film consists mainly of talking head interviews; Shankly is hardly visible, and is only occasionally heard; he appears to be almost a ghostly presence.

This is disconcerting because Shankly was known for having a lively relationship with the press, and for his great gift with words. A lot of this has been captured on film but is not included here. He had a way of expressing himself which was deeply engaging, and which was a critical part of his talent as a great manager. His profound sense of conviction was transmitted to his players, thanks to his emphatic and deft use of words. His negotiations with his board of directors, the interviews he gave the press, his whole-hearted engagement with football supporters, and with the whole city of Liverpool – all this exuded vibrant optimism and vigour.

Early in the film, football historian Billy Kay explains that in the 1790s, in Scotland, miners were serfs – but by the 19th century, they’d organised into what he calls the vanguard of the working class, with a powerful culture of self-help, and self-improvement. Robert Burns, the poet, also from Ayrshire, is known to have had a profound impact on Shankly – in terms at least of his socialist values. And Barbara Shankly reminisces that in Glenbuck, when it was still a working mining village, if ever one had a bit extra of something, and this was very rare, one would not hesitate to give it to a neighbour in need. One never knew when one would need help oneself one day.

That these aspects of mutual help and self-improvement seem so entwined with Shankly’s sporting career is simply because Shankly, too, merged these aspects in his vision: his personal values, of hard work, of sharing, of integrity, by all accounts were instrumental in creating his footballing triumphs – and were also shaped the football techniques he developed during his career, both as player and manager. We hear recordings where Shankly explains this.

“The players were brought up not to worry as an individual too much. Share the ball, share the game, share the worries…”

It was not just team psychology. Billy Kay goes on to mention how Shankly’s technique was steeped in a tradition going back hundreds of years – the short passing game. In another recording, Shankly is heard describing that essential collaboration.

“Control and pass, control and pass…. All give and take, and give and back up.”

Many of the players who worked with Shankly over the years appear in the film, some interviewed especially, others emerging from the archives: Tom Finney, Mark Lawrenson, Roger Hunt, Ian St John, Kevin Keegan. Their affectionate reminiscing is testimony to the extraordinary and lasting impact Shankly had on their lives. They too associate footballing technique and moral values, and, crucially, the fundamental importance of fitness training – something which Shankly learnt from his own father, who had perfected fitness techniques for running (Shankly’s father had been a runner, not a footballer).

“You see, it’s not how long you train, it’s how much you put into training … working hard, training…twisting and turning, twisting and turning, that’s what the game is about. If you are fit you’ll have a tremendous advantage over everyone else.”

The players talk of playing the Liverpool way, keeping possession of the ball, progression, and of how Shankly’s approach was to focus on building up the team psychologically, with hefty forthright encouragement and optimism, rather than focusing on the opposition.

The film charts Shankly’s life after Glenbuck, his early playing career, joining the RAF, and his progression as coach then manager, from 1949: Carlisle, Grimsby, Workington, Huddersfield Town – and finally, after having been approached years earlier, joining Liverpool Football Club in 1959 – at that time still a second division club. By 1965, Liverpool has won its first FA Cup.

This was the sealing of a great love affair with the city. The film shows wonderful archive footage of happy crowds – it was a great time for Liverpool – the music, the football; Shankly’s energy and warmth had made their mark. He became known for knowing everyone at the club, regardless of their job – that spirit of egalitarianism remaining as strong as ever. The film is good at describing that engagement with all – the club, the players, the supporters, the city. He was said to be adored. The crowds sang to him. Ian St John and Ron Yeats variously say of him that he set the place on fire – that Shankly was football mad, football crazy, and he made people believe…that he learnt from the players as much as he taught them, that it was all about giving and that money never came into it.

George Sephton, Liverpool FC’s stadium announcer, famously known as the voice of Anfield, pins down this spirit in a few words, describing something which would seem almost unimaginable nowadays:

“He spoke, and the whole city just shut up and listened. He spoke to their heart, they understood what he was talking about, they really idolised the guy. It was amazing.”

The film is an elegy to football past, to a British past – and inevitably a hagiography. It is also purposefully low key film, with a pared down, old school aesthetic: talking heads, archive, a few walkabout scenes, no voice-over. It does not draw attention to itself.

Overall the mood of the film seems coloured by Shankly’s abrupt departure from Liverpool after Liverpool’s greatest triumph at the time, that hard-won victory: winning the FA Cup in 1974. Shankly had been known to stand up to his board of directors, and to periodically announce his departure – only to then be persuaded to stay on. Not this time. When news of his decision came out, fans were shocked and bereft. The film shows archive footage of vox pops in the streets of Liverpool, young fans being asked on the hop about his resignation. The bemused expression of a young boy being told the news is one of the lasting images of this film.

Towards the end of the film, Shankly’s grand-daughter, Karen Gill mentions how football without supporters is absolutely nothing, and that for her grandfather, that’s where the passion, the joy came from. It was a symbiotic relationship. That sense of deep connection meant that at one point Shankly spoke of Anfield as a shrine – and later, even as a resting place…

“You see, this is the story, Liverpool is not only a club, it’s an institution, where my aim was to bring the people close to the team, to the club. So much so that when men died, and women, the wives, brought their ashes to Anfield, they scattered them on the Anfield ground, they said a little prayer, then they went away. Football is a matter of life and death. I say it’s more important than that, it’s more important to them than that, you see. That’s why there was no hypocrisy, it was sheer honesty. These people support Liverpool. I accepted them in there, come in. In you come.”

Nadia Bee is a writer and filmmaker. She tweets @NadjaBee.


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